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Papua New Guinean Roots
I am reading an excellent book by Kira Salak called The Four Corners. These are her stories as a lone traveler in Papua New Guinea. It is interesting to read from her point of view the great dangers there. I read things and thought I “really” didn’t know it.
You see our experiences were very different because she traveled alone while I went there when I was two years old and had all the protection of my family, other missionaries and all the wonderful PNG-wantoks (friends), that we had. Having lived there until I was thirteen, I consider myself part PNG-ian.
I am excited when I can buy a bowl of greens or prepare fish (mackerel) and rice. I recently saw a post on Facebook about books for Papua New Guinea. They demand books because they don’t even have textbooks or books to use in schools. I was so excited I went through all my books and am going to the post office today. Why? Because I feel like I’m helping my people.
I returned from New Guinea when I was thirteen and left my dear mother in the grave in the small village of Pabrabuk. My life has never been the same since I lost my mother, but it hasn’t been since living in New Guinea either. When my family and I returned to PNG in 2007 (fourteen years after we left), we still came back to the many wonderful railwaymen who took us everywhere and gave us big feasts called muums – food cooked in the earth , wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with hot stones. Unbelievable! Pork, chicken, sweet potatoes, bananas and vegetables cooked to incredible perfection. In Višavje, where we lived, cooking was done this way. The pork fat gave it flavor and moistness. In the Sepik region (coastal areas) they do the same, except they mix in coconut milk, which is just as delicious.
So they celebrated us and gave us many bilums, which are homemade wallets made of yarn and sometimes fur. So we were surprised to find that even after fourteen years, nothing has changed. It felt like we were returning to the era we left. People were still living in grass huts in the villages, apart from Port Moresby, the main city you have to fly into, everything was as we had left it. It was amazing and wonderful at the same time.
But what was sad for me was that Pabrabuk, our little village where I grew up with missionaries and people everywhere, and where my mother was buried, was like a ghost town. A handful of people lived in the houses and a few people went to the college we started. But the silence everywhere made me feel so lonely. I thought going back to my mother’s grave would help me bond with her, but all I felt was loneliness.
We couldn’t stay in the house we grew up in, but they put us up in a guest house. The moment we entered I wanted to leave and go to the nearest town, which was Mount Hagen, an hour away. When you turned on the lights, the roaches would scatter everywhere. They were all over the walls in the kitchen. In the bathroom, we had to cover the toothbrushes with plastic bags to prevent cockroaches from crawling on them. I was in bed praying that a cockroach wouldn’t crawl on me while I was sleeping.
It was funny, our itinerary was to fly to Port Moresby and stay with our wontaks and then fly to Lae (the rainforest there is so beautiful) where another friend of ours was from before. They took us to Goroka, where we moved to for the last three years we were there (and lived with my stepmother – so not fun memories) and then through the Highland Highway where I always stopped and bought a fresh crown flower, via Hagen mountains to Pabrabuk.
We didn’t even know if we would be able to go to Pabrabuk because it was very dangerous. We had a police escort there. I was so excited because it was the highlight of my trip. So the disappointment of looking forward to the worst experience left me feeling really depressed.
Besides the loneliness of past memories and disgusting cockroaches, my ex-husband and I weren’t on speaking terms, and my father, a missionary and preacher, was mad at me for wearing pants. We had a fight and I won and still wore my pants even though my father told me I was dishonoring my mother’s memory. However, all of this made my dream trip the worst trip I’ve ever taken.
The only positive side of Pabrabuk was that we went to the vine bridge because my sister-in-law had never seen it before and had a grand adventure. New Guineans are known for not caring about time, as most villages do not have clocks. Why would you? So if you ask them how long it will take to get somewhere, they just shrug and say “not long – half an hour to an hour.” Thinking that our journey to this vine bridge would take no more than an hour and a half, we all set off without food or water, my brother, his wife and two children, my ex-husband, whom I had not spoken to, and myself. My father, of course, stayed in the village.
After hours of walking in the sun, the kids got hungry and my brother realized we weren’t even close to this place. Fortunately, the natives we passed gave the children some peanuts and we continued. After a few hours we finally reached there. We walked over the vine bridge, ate more peanuts and drank water under it.
All was well and good, a nice little adventure until we headed home and it started to get dark and then we started to get sprinkled. Walking in the dark through kunai grass (long, sharp grass – made me want to wear pants) and over rocks that we couldn’t see very well now was quite different from trekking during the day.
The journey home seemed twice as long and we were never so happy to have a van waiting for us. We stopped to buy some snacks for the kids at a little shop in the middle of nowhere. We were told to stay in the van as the men were drunk and it wasn’t safe. My sister-in-law acted scared, but I wasn’t scared. Nothing bad ever happened to us in New Guinea. Actually, growing up I was always disappointed when there was a tribal war or something bad happened that I didn’t get to go see, but my brother did.
The next day we just took it easy and walked twenty minutes to the waterfall and swam under it, which was beautiful, but the most memorable waterfall was the one in Goroka, where we always took our friends and went down the waterfall and cliff diving. I still love Papua New Guinea and feel it is a deep part of who I am, but I don’t know if I will ever go back.
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